The most striking new building in Mumbai—the first stop on President Obama’s Asia trip—is a gleaming 27-story tower that sits atop ritzy Malabar Hill. What’s remarkable about the skyscraper is its purpose: it’s a single-family home, meant to house only industrialist Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, and his wife and three kids. (This being India, his mother has a spare floor, too.) Mumbai’s rich have always sought ways to distance themselves psychologically and physically from the city’s dirt and chaos; one person involved with Ambani’s “house” likened its rising girders to a “vertical driveway,” separating the family from the heaving masses below.
India, too, would love to escape its neighborhood. One big reason Obama won’t be visiting Pakistan this week is because New Delhi no longer wants to be considered in the same breath as its dangerously failing rival. It’s not an unreasonable desire: India has a GDP of $1.2 trillion, an economy that’s growing at more than 8 percent annually, and a middle class that’s almost as big as the population of the United States. Washington and New Delhi share interests far beyond the tense Indo-Pak border. The Pentagon relies on the Indian Navy to help police the region’s sea lanes. America is bolstering India’s ties with other Asian democracies, in part to counter the spread of Chinese influence. India sees itself as a global power—and Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka as fragile societies, if not basket cases.
There’s something deeply ironic about all this. Indian leaders fought the 1947 Partition that gave birth to Pakistan tooth and nail. Now they’d just as soon pretend their nuclear-armed neighbor did not exist, like one of those ragged street dwellers Mumbai’s stockbrokers step around on their way to work.
America, though, needs to be promoting even closer relations between India and its neighbors. Rightly or wrongly, the Pakistani military maintains ties to jihadists, including those battling U.S. troops in Afghanistan, largely because they are seen as potential proxies against India. Islamabad isn’t likely to shift more troops from its eastern border to tackle the Taliban until that rivalry is eased. Obama is smart enough not to raise this point publicly. But it’s at least as crucial to U.S. interests as getting India to cooperate on Iran sanctions, or global climate-change legislation.
India, too, cannot simply ignore the sea of dysfunction that laps at its shores. As the 2008 Mumbai attacks demonstrated, jihadists based in Pakistan are fixated on targeting Indian cities. A homegrown Maoist insurgency has drawn inspiration—and possibly weapons—from a similar movement across the border in Nepal. Opium from Afghanistan has contributed to a burgeoning drug problem.
Both Washington and New Delhi should become more involved with the rest of South Asia, not less. Indians don’t complain about at least one of the ties that bind them to the rest of the region: the sexy, boisterous movies, music, and TV shows churned out by Bollywood. Indian entertainment dominates markets from Kunduz in Afghanistan to Kandy in Sri Lanka. True, it has sparked a backlash in some places, where women and young people have challenged the mores of their conservative societies. But that’s the point: trashy soaps are a powerful liberalizing force.
New Delhi should be looking for other ways to integrate India’s booming economy with its neighbors’ faltering ones. Bilateral trade with Pakistan is a paltry $1.65 billion, about the same as with Vietnam; most estimates say it should be closer to $10 billion. The smartest Indian officials recognize this, of course; resistance often comes from the neighbors, who as vassals fear being swamped by Indian products.
But here is where the United States can be helpful. Rather than lecturing India about easing its military occupation in Kashmir, or fruitlessly demanding that Pakistan cut off the Taliban, U.S. officials should be pressuring their Pakistani and Bangladeshi and Nepalese counterparts to open their markets to Indian goods and services. One goal of Obama’s trip is to cut deals for U.S. firms in India. But he would do well to consider how to help Indian companies strike their own deals in the region. (Think of how dramatically tensions between China and Taiwan have eased since their economies have fused.)
Ignoring those potential markets is not an option for New Delhi. Ambani’s over-the-top manse is kitted out with three helipads, which means he can always fly away from his surroundings. India can’t.
Hajari is managing editor at NEWSWEEK.